If you could vote to reduce your taxes by about 25 percent, but doing so meant you would be responsible for almost doubling what your neighbor pays, what would you choose?
And what if there were no guarantees your leap of faith would end up saving you much of anything at all?
That’s the dilemma faced by voters in the Orleans County village of Medina, 43 miles west of Rochester, where residents will head to the polls later this month to weigh in on dissolving their local government.
Proponents say a “yes” vote will lead to lower taxes without a sacrifice of essential services.
“The village is an extra entity over the towns and the village residents not only support the village government, but the town’s as well,” said Andrew Meier, Medina’s mayor and an outspoken supporter of dissolution. “The village residents end up double taxed by merely existing as a village, and we need that extra level to go away.”
But opponents say village taxes won’t actually be reduced much if the vote goes through, and if it does, there is no way to avoid cuts to services.
“People voting for this have to be willing to lose the services they’ve come to rely on,” said Mary Woodruff, Town Board member in Ridgeway. If the village dissolves, it would be absorbed into the towns of Ridgeway and Shelby. “Or, if those services are available they will have to pay special district taxes, so don’t be swayed by talk your taxes will go down by $500 because nobody’s mentioning all these special districts.”
Gov. Andrew Cuomo has been beating the drum of consolidation since his days as attorney general, with calls for residents to take matters into their own hands and force the combination some of the thousands of different government entities that each collect taxes from New Yorkers — towns, villages and school districts. Our notoriously high property taxes are often cited as a driving force behind stagnation in job growth and the exodus of residents to states where the taxes are lower.
“In the western and northern parts of the state in particular, the cost of government is high,” said Tim Hoefer, executive director of the Empire Center for New York State Policy. His group advocates for government cost savings via streamlining, whether through shared services, dissolution or consolidation. “They are sort of supporting a system that was built for a population that no longer exists; we have large governments and small populations and they haven’t right-sized themselves.”
Nearly 50 village governments have dissolved in the state since 1921, with 10 of those happening within the past five years, according to the Empire Center. Voters have approved about one-third of all dissolutions up for referendum since a greater state push in 2008.
“Is dissolution a catch-all for everyone? No,” said Hoefer. “But it’s encouraging to see anyone looking it as an option, it certainly seems to make sense for taxpayers in a village who seem to be carrying a disproportionate amount of tax.”
The upcoming vote on whether or not to dissolve the village of Medina has sparked controversy that’s playing out across the pages of Facebook, where dueling information pages vie for attention, has spurred the two towns to hire a public relations firm and led to the opening of a Main Street storefront touting that “This Village Matters.”
Heavy tax burden
Amid all the uncertainty, this much is fact: the property tax burden for Medina residents is incredibly high. Homeowners in the 6,000-resident village pay a cumulative tax rate (town, village, county and school taxes) of more than $54 per $1,000 of assessed property value. That’s one of the highest rates in this region, already renowned for having the highest property taxes as a percentage of home value in the nation. By way of comparison, Brockport residents pay the highest combined tax rate in Monroe County, approximately $49 per $1,000. In the Finger Lakes region, the median combined rate is about $35.
When you put government on top of government on top of government, costs can add up. Teasing cost savings out of New York’s onion of governments has been a priority of the Cuomo administration, and the state now offers financial assistance to municipalities to study the pros and cons of dissolution or consolidation.
Most recently, Lyons in Wayne County studied dissolution with a $50,000 grant after voters approved transfer of village services to the Town of Lyons in March 2014. That village becomes defunct on Dec. 31, 2015. Dissolution study grants went out this summer to Salem in Washington County and Prospect in Oneida County.
With voter approval, the village of Seneca Falls in Seneca County was subsumed by the town of Seneca Falls in a two-year transition process that ended in 2012. It has been the largest village so far to approve dissolution.
Seneca Falls Town Supervisor Don Earle said the process wasn’t easy, but it worked. Taxes for village residents fell significantly, while those living in the town indeed saw their tax bills increase.
“A lot of people thought like Chicken Little, like the sky is falling and none of those things they feared happened,” Earle said. “Honestly, we have been doing very well although I don’t want to give the impression that it is easy, but the challenges we have found, we have met.”
Mainly, he said, those challenges involved assuming maintenance and upkeep for a village infrastructure that had long been neglected. He said most in the community of 6,600 are satisfied with the outcome.
“But just because we have dissolved and been successful doesn’t mean it is the right thing for every village,” said Earle.
What about Monroe County?
Dissolution has only come up in Monroe County once in recent years, when residents in Brockport gathered enough signatures to put the matter up for referendum in 2010. Although supporters said the move would ease the tax burden on residents, they weren’t having it and shot the plan down with a vote of 959 to 662.
Residents could, however, get the issue back on the ballot at any time, they’d just need to collect enough petition signatures.
Bob Corby, mayor of Pittsford and a member of the executive committee of the New York State Council of Mayors, said that in general dissolution hasn’t gained much traction in Monroe County because we have strong villages designed to provide services to densely populated areas. And residents who choose to live within village borders do so because they provide a sense of downtown and social opportunities lacking in less densely populated areas of towns.
“Villages are large neighborhoods, and while our goals are not at odds with those of towns, the are different because we are denser,” he said. “We have sidewalks, and urban issues that we deal with and village government makes those kinds of issues priority number one.”
And, with with the urban features of village living becoming more of a draw for millennials and Generation Xers alike, who are less drawn to sprawling exurbs than their parents before them, Corby said he wouldn’t be surprised to see a turnaround in village futures.
“Twenty-five years ago, there wasn’t a lot of focus on walkability, but today there’s a greater interest in neighborhoods with walkable characteristics,” he said. “People want to live closer to traditional downtown areas, these are healthier, better atmospheres for living and to raise kids. And this is the type of environment that village government is designed to maintain.”
Savings are small
So, what’s at stake for Medina?
The Center for Governmental Research, or CGR, in Rochester put together a dissolution plan for the village last year that Meier points to when touting benefits of a “yes” vote.
Keeping in mind that the plan calls for continuing all currently offered services, CGR said it was possible with dissolution that the tax rates for residents living within the former village’s borders would plummet by as much as $5 per $1,000. For residents of Ridgeway, however, taxes would increase by as much as $3 per $1,000. Residents of Shelby would be far less affected, seeing a potential increase of about 81 cents per $1,000 on their town tax rate.
“But when you talk about savings, there are actually very few savings,” said Jeff Toussaint, a Town Board member in Ridgeway. “Even if CGR is accurate, they only found $277,000 in annual savings, and while that’s a lot of money to anyone individually, in terms of the budget of the area, that’s only a 2 or 3 percent savings.”
Indeed. Digging into CGR’s numbers, there would be an overall savings of just $277,000 per year across what is now three separate governments, if all services were to continue.
“If you want services you have to pay for them and if you’re willing to go without, you will see savings,” said Paul Bishop, co-leader of the Medina dissolution study team and an associate principal with CGR. “We worked with a team from the village and as we developed our model, at every turn they said they didn’t want to see a decrease in services for the village.”
But, as Meier points out, the state gives extra annual aid to municipalities that agree to consolidation, and that would also add to the tax savings. Defunct, Medina would be in line for a Citizens Empowerment Tax Credit of $541,000 per year.
And, if Ridgeway and Shelby then decided to throw their lots in together and become one town instead of two — a 2011 consolidation study recommended the three merge into one for greater savings — another $447,000 in state aid would flow into that town’s coffers.
“That’s closer to $1 million in incentive money every year,” said Meier, who is hoping Medina’s dissolution would kickstart efforts to merge the towns.
But town officials are skeptical of the state’s promises.
“This money is not guaranteed and if you’re going to hitch your wagon to that, you can’t ignore the fact that the money could go away,” said Toussaint. “Linking your economic future to government welfare is not a solid foundation to build a community on.”
Ed Weider, a retired teacher living in Medina, supports the dissolution vote.
“Already, Medina residents pay about $1.1 million to the towns of Ridgeway and Shelby in taxes every year and we get very little in return,” he said. “I feel we are subsidizing those town budgets and it’s been going on for I don’t even know how long.”
He said the best solution would ultimately be for the three governments to become one.
“That would spread things around so the area would be one Medina, or I don’t care what it’s called because we aren’t going to lose our history,” he said. “But this would be a step to streamline and modernize our government so it could all be conducted in a more efficient manner.”
Still, while Meier continues to point to the framework in the CGR plan, town officials note they’re under no obligation to stick to the plan, particularly to provisions that would retain police, fire and ambulance services largely intact.
“I think the residents need to realize that if they wish to keep their services, then they should keep their village,” said Ridgeway Town Supervisor Brian Napoli.
Weider said residents do want to keep their services — particularly the Police and Fire departments — but they also want more efficient government.
Medina has its own police department, while the towns are patrolled by the Orleans County Sheriff’s Department and State Police. In addition the village also has a paid Fire Department that’s staffed 24 hours a day. If one of the two towns doesn’t opt to pick up the Police Department, it could go away, although Meier thinks that’s a political risk town officials wouldn’t be willing to take.
“If the vote is to dissolve, the two towns will have substantial work to do to prepare for the village to go away,” said CGR’s Bishop. “There’s a lot that’s up in the air. The biggest is what would happen to the police service?”
Another sticking point: only residents of Medina proper get to vote Jan. 20 on whether or not to dissolve. People who live in the towns outside the village don’t get a say.
And that’s not fair, said Ridgeway board member Paul Blajszczak.
“If the people of the village think their taxes are definitely too high, then it’s intuitive that their costs are too high and they’re spending too much,” he said. “So what you need to do is cut expenses, not go through elaborate plans, strange plans to have people other than you pay your taxes.”
But when it comes to making up their minds, Earle, of Seneca Falls, said residents need to consider their realities.
“You need to really concentrate on the facts rather than the fears and the unknowns,” he said. “There always seem to be groups that come in and spread the fears and unknowns, but concentrate on those facts and ask ‘Is it good for all of us to combine?’ ”
For more information
Officials of Ridgeway and Shelby are holding a public information meeting on their opposition to dissolution of the Village of Medina at 7 p.m. Wednesday at Medina High School, 2 Mustang Drive.
Polls will be open in Medina from noon to 9 p.m. Jan. 20 at the Senior Center, 615 West Ave.
By the numbers
$54 About what Medina homeowners pay in combined school, town, village and county taxes per $1,000 of assessed value.
$35 The Finger Lakes regional median for combined property tax rates per $1,000 of assessed value.
$277,000 The estimated annual cost savings as a result of dissolution.
$541,000 Citizen Empowerment Tax Credit for the community if Medina dissolves.
$363 Potential median annual tax reduction for Medina homeowners living in Ridgeway under dissolution.
$218 Potential median annual tax increase under dissolution for current residents in Ridgeway who don’t live in the village.
$469 Potential median annual tax reduction for Medina homeowners living in Shelby under dissolution
$57 Potential median annual tax increase under dissolution for current Shelby residents who don’t live in the village.
© 2015 Rochester Democrat & Chronicle